The hockey gods have done the Pittsburgh Penguins no favors this season. Injuries have ravaged the team and over the past three games which have been their first without scoring winger Jake Guentzel, the Penguins looked discombobulated. Actually, it may be their worst three-game run of the season and they’ve scored only five goals in those three games.
And now the schedule makers have piled on with a brutal January schedule which not only includes 11 games in 20 days, the two games in 22 hours turnaround this weekend, but nine of their next 12 games on the road.
“We didn’t seem to have as much juice,” head coach Mike Sullivan said in reference to their 4-1 loss to Florida on Sunday.
It’s a fair question to ask. How much longer can this tattered group keep up this pace which has vaulted them into second place of the Metro Division?
Fortunately for the Penguins, they don’t have to keep up this torrid pace to make the playoffs. They have a six-point lead on Philadelphia and a nine-point lead over rebuilding Columbus for what would be the final playoff spot.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is the Pittsburgh Penguins are beginning to look and feel every bit like a team which has been torn to shreds by injuries. In the three games since Guentzel was injured, the Penguins are 1-1-1, but two went to overtime because the Penguins mustered a third period comeback.
“I think anytime a guy who is that important, who does that much on the ice, and plays that much goes down it is a little bit difficult to try to get your bearings and get your chemistry,” Bryan Rust responded to PHN. “Give credit to the guys in this room, we’ve done a really good job all year with that.”
The Penguins have not done a good job responding to injury, they’ve done a remarkable job. But how many more fights can they win with one hand figuratively tied behind their back?
“(Sunday night) we didn’t have our best game. We just have to learn from it and move on,” Rust concluded.
But what can be learned from tired legs and a lack of talent?
Rust said the Penguins should have played a simpler game. Sullivan used the same term when describing what he wants to see from top defenseman Kris Letang, who is currently mired in a funk.
The Penguins have simplified their game with much success this season. Through the first 42 games (the halfway point of the season plus one), the Penguins have been goal-differential monsters. At plus-29, only the Colorado Avalanche (plus-32) have a better differential.
How much longer can they succeed without two-thirds of their top line, Guentzel and Sidney Crosby? Without half of their top-four defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz? How much longer can they succeed with nearly their entire lineup playing roles greater than their natural station?
That’s not a downgrade on players like Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, or even Teddy Blueger, but the Penguins success now depends on those players and more playing a greater role and playing against higher competition.
It’s not possible for Evgeni Malkin to continue scoring two points per game, or Bryan Rust to maintain a 50-goal pace. Or Tristan Jarry to stop 94% of the shots he faces.
And so as the San Jose Sharks simply played defense and hoped their talent edge could eke out a win on Thursday, which it did, and the Montreal Canadiens talented scorers capitalized on numerous mistakes on Saturday, and those mistakes multiplied against Florida on Sunday, the talent disparity between the Penguins and their opponents was on full display.
Yes, the Penguins need to simplify their game and use the few advantages they have left, such as speed. But as the games get more serious, other teams are raising their game, too. Simplifying to limit mistakes won’t be enough.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have surprised everyone at every turn this season. They’ve defied the odds and expectations as the significant injuries mounted. But it’s a real question, how much longer can they do it?